Washington Initiative 522 on GMO Labeling

Last year there was much discussion on California's Prop 37, which would have mandated labeling of genetically engineered (GE) ingredients.  After enjoying strong a strong lead in the polls, Prop 37 actually failed to garner a majority of votes, and thus did not become law.   

One year later, Washington State now has a similar initiative up for vote (the text of the law is here; a few more details are here).  The issues at play are largely the same as those in California.  As I wrote then, the ultimate cost impacts will depend critically on how retailers chose to respond to the mandatory label, should the initiative pass.

One thing that makes the WA initiative different than the one on California is the sheer size of the state.  If Prop 37 had passed in California, it likely would have had important implications for the rest of the U.S., both because California is such a large agricultural producer and because they are such a large consumer of agricultural products.  WA, by contrast, is a much smaller state, population-wise, and they comparatively grown small amounts of corn and soybeans - the primarily GE food crops grown in the U.S. (WA grows a lot of wheat, but no GE wheat is commercially for sale in the US) . So, it is less clear what impact passage of I-522 would have for the rest of us.  Would it be worth it for Frito-Lay, Coca-Cola, Kellogg et al. to reformulate only for WA?  Would they only add a label in that state?  Would they pull out of WA all together?  Nobody knows.

I've received a couple calls from reporters asking about potential impacts on farmers and whether there is really a "zero tolerance" limit.  My thought on I-522 are largely the same as they were several months ago in relation to Prop 37: 

It is true Prop 37 doesn't literally force processors and retailers to adopt more expensive non-GE products but that may be the ultimate consequence (or it may not - but we have to keep open the possibility).  It is also true that Prop 37 doesn't literally impose zero tolerance but that may well be the ultimate consequence.  
Truth is we don't really know.  But, consider a possible chain of events at some point in the future.  Despite the wording of the law, some individual in CA tests and finds that a non-labeled product contains GE (ANY trace of GE no matter how small).  The manufacturer of the product is then sued.  Then, it would be up to the manufacturer to provide all the sworn statements of unintentional use of GE.  But, then how do you prove “unintentional” or "accidental"? This is especially [true] when every farmer (who provides the sworn statement) knows there is some chance the seed they plant contains at least some small traces of GE.  Even if the manufacturer withstands the legal challenge, non-trivial legal costs must be incurred to prove innocence.  Moreover, if one reads the full text of the law, they can see  that after July 1, 2019, the exception for "unintentional" use disappears - making the tolerance effectively zero at that time, 
It is that sort of reading and reasoning that I think folks are referring to (or at least that I am referring to) when saying that Prop 37 imposes zero-tolerance.   

Overall, it is difficult to know what effects passage of I-522 would have.  There is some chance manufactures will simply add the "contains GE label", most consumers will ignore it, and life goes on as usual (this seem to be what is implied will happen by the statements of many initiative supporters).  There is also a chance manufacturers will try to avoid the label for fear of losing customers, the entire production system eschews biotechnology, food prices go up, and farmers are less profitable (this seems to be what is implied by many opponents of the initiative).  Or anything in between could happen too.

One argument, which I find somewhat compelling is that food and biotech companies are hurting themselves by not being forthright about their products by getting on board with labeling.  It seems by fighting the label they have something to hide.  Why not spend money educating consumers rather than fighting the initiatives?  

The counter argument, which I find more persuasive, relates to one's vision for the proper role of government.  What do we want to allow the government to MANDATE companies say - to compel speech?  A case could be made that such a policy is appropriate when there are legitimate safety or health risks, for example transfats or sugar content.  But, the best science shows no such worries for biotechnology.  

Here is what Cass Sunstein, Obama's former "regulatory czar" had to say on the issue: 

The argument for labeling GM foods would be compelling if they posed risks to human health. This is, of course, a scientific question, and most scientists now believe that GM food, as such, doesn’t pose health risks. Last October, the American Association for the Advancement of Science spoke unequivocally. In its words, “the science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe.”


These arguments aren’t unreasonable, but they run into a serious problem, which is that GM labels may well mislead and alarm consumers, especially (though not only) if the government requires them. Any such requirement would inevitably lead many consumers to suspect that public officials, including scientists, believe that something is wrong with GM foods -- and perhaps that they pose a health risk.
Government typically requires labeling because it has identified such a risk (as in the case of tobacco) or in order to enable people to avoid or minimize costs (as in the case of fuel-economy labels).
A compulsory GM label would encourage consumers to think that GM foods should be avoided. This concern is hardly speculative. In Europe, compulsory labels have lead many retailers, anticipating an adverse consumer reaction, not to include GM foods on their shelves. In the U.S., the result could be economic damage to producers and consumers alike. And if consumers want to avoid GM foods, they can already purchase foods labeled “100 percent organic,” which lack GM ingredients.
In the abstract, it is hard to disagree with the claim that consumers “have a right to know.” But with respect to food, there are countless facts that people might conceivably want to know, and government doesn’t require them to be placed on labels. Unless science can identify a legitimate concern about risks to health or the environment, the argument for compulsory GM labels rests on weak foundations.

My thinking parallels Sunstein's, and that is why I tend to argue against mandated GMO labels (voluntary, however, is fair game).  

And, a reminder, no, I don't work for Monsanto.